The following is an extract from Feminist City by Leslie Kern, which explores how cities are built for men and the ways that women fight to take up space. Looking through the lens of geography, pop culture and public and personal history, the book exposes how female bodies are ostracised in urban spaces. In particular, the following extract considers how young (white) girls are expected to exist separately to cities but when teenage girls explore urban landscapes together, it gives female friendships greater power.
When we were fifteen my friend Sally and I snuck downtown for a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at what was then the Bloor Cinema. My parents were out of town and I was supposed to be spending the night at Sally’s. At some point during the raucous live show that accompanied the movie, we lost what remained of our money, and therefore, our passage home to the suburbs. After some searching on the sticky theatre floors once the lights came up, we realised we were out of luck and emerged into the chilly, 2 a.m. spring air of Toronto. Confident that the city would somehow provide for us, we decided to make our way to Yonge Street. We figured that the two dollars or so left in Sally’s pocket would get us a hot chocolate and a place to sit in a 24-hour coffee shop. In the morning, we’d walk down to Union Station and sneak onto a commuter train, where we could take our chances that no ticket collectors would come by. Although we were annoyed we’d lost our money, our attitude was very matter-of-fact. Together, we didn’t have anything to fear.
The details are fuzzy almost thirty years later, but I don’t think we made it to Yonge Street as directly as we’d hoped. We hitched a ride in the wrong direction before striking up a conversation with a couple of teenage boys who lived in the city, also under an apparent lack of parental supervision. As a group of four, we spent the rest of our night wandering up and down Yonge Street, sitting in CoffeeTime and McDonald’s and sneaking into office buildings where we could lurk in the stairwells. A homeless artist drew our portraits in a coffee shop; we interrupted a fight between a couple on their way out of a club; we visited our favourite concert venue—the Masonic Temple—and sat in a parkette talking about our favourite bands. In the morning, our new friends bought us subway tokens and, seemingly out of a sense of obligation more than actual interest, asked for our phone numbers before waving us off on a westbound train.
Afterwards, the whole night felt like a dream, a tall tale no one but Sally and I would believe. Of course we couldn’t tell our parents or siblings, and rapidly, the whole weird night became our secret. We spoke of it so rarely that after Sally and I passed out of each other’s lives after high school, I hardly thought of it. When it came back to me I had to wonder if I imagined the whole thing. But I still have the hasty portrait that we bought from the homeless artist, sketched in black pen on the back of a McDonald’s placemat, taped into my journal of the time.
Sally and I managed to hide the full truth from our parents, although I was berated for what my parents believed was a more mundane lie about where we’d held our sleepover. Neither the scolding nor the ridiculousness of the night itself deterred us from future transgressions. I know that as a sensible adult, I’m supposed to look back and say, "That was ridiculous! What were we thinking? It’s a miracle we weren’t murdered!" Instead I can’t help but see it as a moment when our young friendship allowed us to experience the city in a whole new way, to test our own limits, and to gain a sense that the city could be a place for us. These moments of taking charge in our lives were possible because we never questioned that we could count on each other. We knew no one would be left behind or tattled on. Friendship made freedom in the city a possibility for us. In turn, the city streets intensified our bond. It wasn’t just that we rebelled and broke the rules. Taking up space in the city at night—using urban public spaces at times when girls are typically excluded based on social norms and sexist limitations on mobility—was a formative, perhaps even transformative, experience.
Our night on the town isn’t the kind of teen girl story you’re likely to see in a movie or television show. In her study of major teen films from the 1980s and 1990s, feminist geographer Alison Bain found that films reproduce "the notion that girls’ culture doesn’t extend beyond the bedroom." In these popular films, including Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless, Sixteen Candles, and Heathers, among others, girls’ bedrooms are the primary sites for scenes of friendship and interaction among girls, although the semi-private school bathroom also figures regularly. In public spaces, especially urban spaces, girls are portrayed as boys’ "appendages" while out on dates or at public events. Urban spaces were often totally absent. Bain found "little cinematic coverage of intersections or street corners as gathering points for girls," except in films like Foxfire where girls’ rebellion against male violence and social control is the movie’s explicit theme. The city doesn’t seem to be a place where mainstream filmmakers imagine teen girls interacting with one another, building relationships, and claiming space.
The needs and wants of girls and young women are almost completely ignored in architecture and planning.
Perhaps not surprisingly, these films showed little racial or class diversity within the teens’ social groups, always centring white characters. Racial invisibility may hint at where we imagine diversity to exist: not in the private spaces of the home or the affluent suburbs. Movies that centre Black and Latina girls and their friendships are seem more likely to be set in cities, such as 2016’s The Fits (Cincinnati) or 2000’s Our Song (Brooklyn). The girls in Our Song struggle with everyday urban issues facing girls of colour: the closure of their high school due to asbestos, living with the threat of violent crime, and the lack of affordable health care. They try to stay connected to each other through their marching band, but face the possibility of a future where their circumstances will drive them apart.
Outside of the movies, the needs and wants of girls and young women are almost completely ignored in architecture and planning. When communities advocate for "spaces for youth," the kinds of spaces they come up with are skate parks, basketball courts, and hockey arenas. In other words, spaces that have boys in mind as users, and where girls have trouble finding access, acceptance, and safety. When Swedish architecture firm White Arkitekter actually approached teenage girls to design scale models of public space, the girls came up with "places for sitting together face to face, protected from weather and wind, to see without necessary [sic] being seen, a sense of intimacy without being constrictive; and most of all, to be able to leave an imprint on their city."
Despite the lack of attention to their needs, girls do use urban spaces, and in a variety of creative ways. Geographer Mary Thomas studies how girls use public space in cities, querying how they resist, and also reproduce, gendered norms through their patterns of "hanging out" in various consumption spaces. Subject to more spatial control than boys, girls struggle to find places to hang. They must develop their own strategies for avoiding adult surveillance and gaining permission to explore, including using the power of friendship to assuage parental fears about girls alone. Girls can even work together to make direct claims on the city. For example, girls in Hanoi formed a collective to create ‘zines to educate bus drivers and passengers about girls’ safety from harassment on public transit. In Kampala, a youth collective fought to improve hygiene in the city as well as more walkable infrastructure to make sure girls could continue to go to school or work.
The ways that teenage girls and their friends take up space tends to be the subject of more derision than celebration. Their tastes and passionate interests are ridiculed as frivolous, childish, and uncultured. Their takeovers of mall food courts, group trips to the bathroom, and constant slumber parties are portrayed as equal parts annoying and mysterious. In a culture that routinely mocks teen girls and their interests, desires, and hobbies, there are few sources from which to imagine or recognize the ways that girls collectively shape, transform, and re-make their worlds, especially urban worlds.
Girls coming together in urban spaces challenges perceptions about who the city is for. In appropriating abandoned or masculine spaces, leaving their mark through graffiti, and occasionally, erupting into violence of their own, the city as "patriarchy in glass and stone" is re-cast as a space of possibility... Girls’ presence on city streets, a place where they have been deemed out of place, can and should be considered part of girls’ repertoire of resistance to varied modes of control within an adult-dominated, patriarchal society.